Study Finds Sleeping “Sweet Spot” Helps Older Adults Maintain Cognitive Performance

If your sleeping patterns are irregular, it might be time to make changes in favor of your health. According to a study published in the journal Brain, a sleeping “sweet spot” could help older adults to maintain their cognitive performance.

The study — which was conducted over multiple years — involved 100 participants who were tested for cognitive decline and early Alzheimer’s disease, whose sleep-wake activities were monitored for over four to six nights. Additionally, participants slept with an EEG device monitor on their foreheads.

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As the Washington University School of Medicine noted, 88 of the 100 participants had no cognitive impairment, 11 were mildly impaired, and one had mild cognitive impairment. The average age of participants was 75.

The results found that those who slept five and a half hours to seven and a half hours retained brain function. Meanwhile, those who slept over or under the ideal time amount had their cognitive performance suffer. The results were also adjusted for factors such as age, sex, rapid-eye movement (REM) and education.

Associate professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center Brendan Lucey, MD — who was also the lead author of the study — stated that it has been challenging connecting sleep and various stages of Alzheimer’s.

Even with this new data, Lucey said there are still questions left to be answered, such as how adults’ brain performances would respond if methods were implemented to ensure longer sleep for shorter sleepers.

“An unanswered question is if we can intervene to improve sleep, such as increasing sleep time for short sleepers by an hour or so, would that have a positive effect on their cognitive performance so they no longer decline? We need more longitudinal data to answer this question.”

Alzheimer’s can have severe affects on sleep patterns. Alzheimer’s Association states that patients spend 40% of the night awake — either laying restlessly, wandering around, or yelling — and often sleep for a decent portion of the day as a result. Sleep loss in Alzheimer’s patients can also speed up brain damage as well – which makes these findings so much more crucial towards preserving cognitive functionality.

Alzheimer’s isn’t the only disease that can harm the sleep of older adults. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), sleep apnea, insomnia, and movement issues such as REM sleep disorder or restless leg syndrome (RLS) can all be possible hinderances.

However, the NIH shows there are plenty of ways to help you get a better night’s sleep. Following a regular sleeping schedule is important for your body’s internal clock. Keeping your bedroom at comfortable temperatures while using low-lighting closer to your bedtime is also suggested.

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Remember to not use screens — such as your TV, phone, or other devices — when it’s close to your bedtime, as the lights could affect your sleep. Thinking of consuming a certain beverage or meal as a night-time snack? That’s also a no-no – consuming soda, coffee, alcohol, and large servings could force you to stay awake due to the energy boosts they provide.

There are other factors to consider, as well. The quality and comfort of your pillows, mattresses, and blankets can greatly influence how much sleep you receive. If they end up causing discomfort, you’ll be twisting and turning for hours.

It’s also not just older adults that should have an ideal sleep time frame. The Sleep Foundation recommends that six to 13 year olds should have around nine to 11 hours of sleep, 14 to 17 year olds should have eight to 10 hours, and adults from 18 to 64 should have eight to nine hours.

While trying to find that sweet spot may be challenging, the end goal of better brain behavior and overall health makes the effort more than worth it.

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How Exercise Improves Brain Health

The various benefits of regular exercise on the human body are well-known. But fewer people realize that exercise benefits not just the body, but the mind as well. Indeed, recent studies have revealed that the connection between physical fitness and psychological health runs deeper than previously assumed, both in people with mental illnesses and in psychologically healthy people. Exercise not only improves brain performance in the short term, sharpening memory and information processing, but can also help maintain the health of the brain in the long term by lessening the impact of dementia in old age. While a lifelong routine of exercise is most likely to protect the brain against the worst effects of age-related psychological problems, exercise has also been shown to improve brain function immediately after as few as one workout. As such, when it comes to preserving and improving mental health, physical exercise plays a more substantial role than most of us likely assume.

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Several studies were reported on in 2019 that represent substantial breakthroughs in medical understanding of the relationship between the brain and body. A study published in July, for instance, looked at the performance of semantic memory, or the portion of long-term memory involving ideas and concepts not related to personal experience, in older adults immediately following exercise. It found that after a single session of exercise, regions of the brain associated with semantic memory were more active, though this effect did not apply throughout the entire brain. While scientists used to believe that the human brain was fully formed and fixed by the time a person reaches adulthood, recent evidence has shown that the brain actually remains somewhat malleable throughout life. As semantic memory is often one of the first aspects of brain function to deteriorate with age, these findings give hope to people who are entering old age and are concerned about preserving their brain function through the end of their lives.

The results of this study are supported by other studies that examine how, at a molecular level, exercise changes the brain. Specifically, in a study published in January, scientists found that the hormone irisin may play a key role in preserving brain function, even in people experiencing age-related cognitive impairment. The study involved mice, but nevertheless provides insights about the function of the human brain, as all mammals are fairly genetically similar to one another. Irisin is a hormone that is released during exercise and helps the body metabolize energy while working out, improving the function of the body as well as the brain. It is thought to be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, as the brains of people who did not have Alzheimer’s were found to contain irisin whereas the brains of people with Alzheimer’s had none. In the study, mice that were bred to develop dementia performed better on memory tests after being given a dose of irisin, and mice whose production of irisin was artificially blocked were prone to developing dementia.

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Another study published in 2019 looked at how different forms of exercise affect the brain in different ways. While scientists have determined that aerobic exercise can improve memory and cognition by creating new neurons and reducing inflammation in the brain, less has been determined about the impact of weight training. As such, the researchers in this study developed a weight training program for rats, some of which had been given a substance that causes the development of dementia in animals, to determine whether weight training has the same positive effects on the brain that aerobic exercise does. The scientists found that the rats involved in the weight training program more successfully navigated a maze than those that weren’t, even for the rats with induced cognitive impairment. In fact, an examination of the rats’ brain tissue found that the rats who trained with weights were actually able to restore lost brain function, as their brains reshaped themselves to more closely resemble the brains of healthy rats. The results suggest that all forms of exercise, whether they focus on improving cardiovascular health or muscle mass, may support overall brain health.

While more work certainly has to be done to understand the full extent of the relationship between exercise and brain health, it is abundantly clear that frequent exercise is a key component of a healthy life. Anyone who is physically able to exercise is likely to benefit from a regular workout routine in any number of ways, some of which may not have even been discovered yet.


Breakthrough in Treatment of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is often referred to as a “cruel” disease, robbing the sufferer of many cherished memories and causing deep sadness to the loved ones they may not remember anymore.

But a new drug primarily used with Parkinson’s may be able to help ease symptoms.

A recent study found that the drug pimavanserin can help people who suffer not only with Alzheimer’s disease but other strains of dementia, resulting in the study finishing early due to how obvious the benefits were.

In a conference in San Diego, California researchers shared their findings and are hoping that pimavanserin will be the latest drug for nearly twenty years that categorically targets dementia-related psychosis. It also seems to help with other symptoms including hallucinations that can cause the caregivers, patients and loved ones emotional stress, due to them often resulting in the patients suffering from anxiety and/or aggression which can often lead to verbal and physical abuse.

The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation acknowledged the discovery with Chief Science Officer Dr. Howard Fillit suggesting it would be a “very important advance.”

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Chief Science Officer Maria Carrillo commented “there is a huge unmet need for better treatment” which is why the focus is primarily on preventing future cases of dementia as well as aiming to find a cure.

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Pimavanserin is sold as Nuplazid by Acadia Pharmaceuticals Inc and is provided as a pill to be taken each day. It is believed to work by stopping the chemical in the brain that appears to activate hallucinations and was originally approved in 2016 for Parkinson’s-related psychosis.

It is believed around 8 million Americans suffer from dementia with studies showing psychosis has developed in 30% of patients.

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas commented, “it’s terrifying. You believe that people might be trying to hurt you. You believe that people are stealing from you. You believe that your spouse is unfaithful to you. Those are the three most common false beliefs.”

Acadia carried out the study of around 400 sufferers of dementia and psychosis. Each patient received a small dose of pimavanserin for three months with those who appeared to respond separated into two different groups. Half of these were then given “fake” tablets for the next six months although they were taken off the trial if their symptoms got worse or they had a relapse. The remaining 50 percent continued to take to pill. Importantly, none of the patients were aware of which drug they were taking.

However, the study ceased when it was obvious that those on the fake tablets were over twice as likely as those who took the real tablet – a staggering 28% compared to just under 13%.
Another positive aspect of the study showed that there were not very many serious side effects, with only 5% of those taking the drug complaining of problems and 4% on those on fake tablets.
Although urinary tract infections and headaches were seen in both groups the study also suffered two deaths which study leaders confirmed were nothing to do with the drug.

And although the study was small, the positive outcome was huge, yet Carrillo is not sure whether the federal Food and Drug Administration will order more studies before approving the different use of the drug.

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At the moment anti-psychotic medication can be a negative experience for users and therefore are not approved for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia with Fillit admitting “they’re often used off label because we have very few other options.”

However as with all medication, there have to be warnings that the drugs could increase the risk of fatalities, specifically in elderly sufferers.

The other issue that patients and their families will have to deal with is the cost with each course of medication costing around $3,000 each month, however the actual cost to the patient will depend on their insurance coverage.

Alongside the medication there are other ways in which you can help people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease such as making sure you keep in touch with them. Many family members stop visiting as they find it too distressing however a card, a telephone call or even a letter can still show that you care about your family member even if you cannot face the visit.

You should also educate yourself about the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia so as your loved one continues to suffer you can hopefully help them and yourself to deal with it.

If the patient you know is not a family member but a good friend or neighbor, offering to sit with them while their family takes a break will always be welcome. It can be tough living with a sufferer so a reprieve will always be welcome.